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Ute golf team was on verge of making history when season came to an abrupt end

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Utah’s Blake Tomlinson hits an iron during the final round of the 2019 Pac-12 Golf Championships at Eugene Country Club in Eugene, Oregon, on April 24, 2019.

Samuel Marshall

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah golf team was on the verge of accomplishing something it hadn’t done in 32 years — earn a spot in the NCAA Golf Championships.

That’s when their world, like hundreds of other athletic teams around the country, was turned upside-down because of the coronavirus pandemic circling the globe.

The Utes have been making steady progress in the tough Pac-12 Conference, arguably the strongest golf conference in the country, over the past four years under coach Garrett Clegg. The Utes were in the midst of their best overall season in decades, just coming off a fifth-place finish at the Bandon Dunes Championship in Oregon. In the final round, the Utes had fired a 6-under-par round, the best of the 16 teams, which included fellow Pac-12 schools Oregon, Oregon State and Washington State.

They came home from the tournament on March 11 and were planning to leave for a tournament in Tucson two days later. March 11, of course, was the day Rudy Gobert tested positive for the virus and like hundreds of other athletic programs in the country, the Ute season came to a crashing halt the following day.

“Everyone’s expectations were high and everyone was super excited and ready to go,” said Clegg. “And then they got a bucket of ice water dumped on top of them.”

The Ute coach said he felt especially bad for his seniors, Mitchell Schow, Jordan Costello and Peyton Hastings, the former two being regulars for four years, 

“Mitchell Schow and Jordan Costello have been such an integral part of everything we’ve done over the last four years and have played most every tournament,” Clegg said. “Everybody talks about the progress we’ve made as a program and a lot of that rests on their shoulders. They’ve done such an incredible job for us, to go out now is unfulfilling.”

Clegg said the seniors were determined to make the NCAA Championships for the first time since 1988. 

“They wanted their legacy to have been where they put our program on the map and they felt like they were progressing at that — and then, boom.” 

Clegg said his team played well in the fall (the college golf season is split between fall and spring) and was in “the best position to make a postseason run” since he became coach in 2016. They had a poor showing in the first event in February in Hawaii, but came back after a pair of lackluster rounds in Oregon with their strong finish. With three tournaments before the Pac-12 Championship, the Utes felt they were in good shape to get into the NCAAs for the first time since 1988.

“It was like a good kick-start and we were ready to go,” Clegg said. “That’s not saying the next tournament we would have played amazing or anything like that, but we have a really talented group, and it wouldn’t have surprised me if we weren’t going to play at a high level for the remainder of the semester.”

To make the NCAA regionals, teams must be in the top 60 to 65 in the rankings and when the season came to its abrupt halt the Utes were No. 70 after earlier being as high as 52.

“The NCAA was for sure a possibility,” Clegg said. “The way we’d been playing I do believe the team would have been fine and made it through to regionals. All we had to do was play solid, stable golf the rest of the way and we’d have been in no problem.”

While there’s no chance of picking up the season at some point this spring, Clegg says he communicates with his golfers every day, but can’t do any team activities on or off the course.

“If we were on the same golf course, even then I couldn’t go and talk to them while they’re hitting golf balls,” he said. “No coaching in any form. I could say hi, but couldn’t play nine holes or even one hole.”

Clegg is optimistic about next year with two of his best players, Blake Tomlinson, who prepped at Skyline High School, and Tristan Mandur from British Columbia, who had scoring averages of 72.3 and 72.1, respectively, this year, returning as seniors. 

“I think we’re going to be great next year,” he said. “Blake and Tristan are awesome — the program will be on their shoulders for their final year.”

Also back are Jesper von Reedtz of Sweden and Javier Barcos of Spain, who were regulars most of this season as freshmen. Other returning players are Axel Einarsson of Sweden, Colton Tanner of Park City and Oscar Maxfield of Salt Lake.

The Utes also signed three golfers for next year, Martin Leon of Chile and local golfers Braxton Watts (Farmington High) and Brandon Robison (Viewmont). The latter two plan to serve church missions before playing at the U.

The NCAA may make a final decision soon about whether athletes in spring sports can get an extra year of eligibility, but Clegg doubts that would affect his seniors, who will have graduated and may look at professional careers rather than return for another year.